Thursday, 7 May 2009

You're history! Or rather you will be, eventually

First things first. I'd like to thank Argentum Vulgaris, Madame DeFarge and Derrick for their recent, and very kind, awards. Apologies to you all for not acknowledging same sooner. Having recently moved we have embarked upon a course of building work that is now in full swing. As I write the water main is being replaced and the sound of drilling is close to driving me bonkers. I've got at least another three weeks of this, so I have resolved to seek my solace through this blog. Once again, thank you all. It is my intention to devise my own Middenshire Award in due course, so watch this space.

I took a trip up to London on Monday, my first since moving down to Sussex. My destination was the Henry VIII - Man and Monarch exhibition at the British Library. Now, this library (for which I am fortunate enough to have a reader's ticket) is normally a haven of peace. Elderly ladies doing historical research for novels rub shoulders silently with students writing up their theses; staff bustle about unobtrusively with trolleys loader with leather bound tomes; and the loudest sound is usually the clickety-click of laptop keys. But not on Monday; oh no. The Library had succumbed to Living History.

There were hundreds of kids there. Some wore normal clothes; others had been dressed in the style of King Hal, with doublets, paper crowns and beards that had been drawn on with eyebrow pencil. The Library had laid on a feast of Bank Holiday Entertainments for them. There was a King Henry lookalike contest, a few Tudor queens knocking about (including Anne Boleyn with a head), a begowned scrivener, an apothecary with a bottle of widdle to disgust the kids, some musicians, and a crossbow-firing contest, which I stayed well out of the way of. And the kids were doing what kids do best - running riot, climbing on walls, crying, moaning for food...

But I did find the whole thing interesting. The heritage industry has this knack of engaging kids' attention (and mine, clearly!) by staging swordfights, jousts and the like in a way that never happened when I was a child. In those days, museums and ancient monuments seemed to go out of their way to be as dull as possible. No heritage centres then; if you were lucky you might find the odd postcard (black and white) or a guidebook that seemed to have been produced in someone's front room. Now you can't move for glossy guidebooks, pencils, chocolate and cuddly toys appropriately themed for the venue (though I've yet to see a headless Tudor bear). Of course, the whole Living History thing is sanitised; you don't get the stinking bodies, the rotting teeth, the musty clothes...these are things best kept in the background. But most such history directed at children usually manages to mention either 'poo', 'wee' or both during its course. One particularly good heritage event takes place at Hampton Court Palace every December, where a Tudor Christmas is re-enacted. The old kitchens are re-opened, and a group of cooks, expert in Tudor food, spends hours making cakes, roasting joints of mutton, preparing sallets, which they then refuse to let anyone taste because of health and safety regulations!

We are fortunate as a nation to have such a long history. The Saxons, the Norman conquest, the Tudors; all of these lend themselves to re-enactment groups. You only have to look at organisations like The Sealed Knot (civil war) and The Ermine Street Guard (Romans!) to see how popular the whole thing is. But I have a question. How will we be viewed in the future, and how will our 'heritage' be portrayed? Will it reflect the view that 'abroad' has of us? Will they have bowler-hatted city gents chatting to Beefeaters (yes, I know they're Yeoman Warders) whilst children in Benetton-style clothes play hopscotch or whizz around on skateboards? Or will it be something more sinister? Will visitors to NoughtieLand (a celebration of the 21st century heritage) be able to walk round a perfect re-creation of an inner city 'sink' estate, complete with burnt-out cars and sofas dumped at bus stops? Will they be accosted by Chuggers or Muggers - all in fun, of course? Will they witness fake drug deals between theme park employees, or watch a recreation of a drive-by shooting? And what food will be on offer? Will the menu reflect the multi-ethnic communities we have in our inner cities, with curry goat, tabbouleh and the like? Or will it be pizzas, savoury pancakes and Walls Vienetta? Will the restaurants be sponsored by the equivalent of Raymond Blanc, or by Iceland? Perhaps (if NoughtieLand isn't too far off) there will be jobs for our present generation of recidivists. Then, at the age of eighty, they'll be able to sit on an old car seat and regale children with tales of how they hotwired their first motor, or what it felt like to shoplift and not get caught.

This post seems to have become needlessly cynical, coming as it does from someone who now lives in the country and is more likely to encounter a moo-cow than a mugger. But I do wonder, when the history books of our own era are written, what will be seen as important. It is quite possible that those things that currently exercise our minds (climate change, recession) will sink into obscurity, and all we will be remembered for is our addiction to cheap high street clothes, our amazingly unfailing ability to moan about anything and everything, and our obsession with the weather. Don't you think it's been chilly for the time of year? Still, mustn't grumble, I suppose...


Raph G. Neckmann said...

Maybe it will show people blogging and twittering and texting! And possibly no bricks and mortar museums, so it can all be seen online?!

I like the bit about not being able to eat the food 'cos of H& S rules!

Comedy Goddess said...

I think it will be exactly like that movie, Mad Max.

But I much prefer sanitized heritage centres.

Aw, cheer up Chris! Find a moo-cow to hug.

Just Irene said...

I dallied on the fringes of the heritage industry long ago in the 80's. I became a cynic then and when it comes to 'living history', well, I'm assuming this is polite company so I won't say what I think about that! Apologies to the few places I've visited where it does work on a very basic level.

Derrick said...

Hi Chris,

As the less salubrious parts of history have generally been glossed over, we might still just get the gems and forget the dross. But I have the feeling that our supposed passion for reality TV will loom large!

chris hale said...

Raph - Whatever the future has in store, let's hope it's giraffe-friendly!

CG - Like Mad Max? Oh, let's hope not! Mel Gibson looky-likeys driving tanks cum sedans! Now, where's that moo-cow?

Irene - Hi, and welcome. I think there's a big difference between real enthusiasts (Sealed Knot, etc.) and rank amateurs (I use the term advisedly!) who may just be in it for the cash. I'de be interested to hear about your 'dalliance'!

Derrick - Oh gawd! Do you think we might end up with a Big Brother them park?

mo.stoneskin said...

"rub shoulders silently"?

The last I heard the students play their ipod music so loud that silence is the thing of the past.

Anonymous said...

Yes, interesting how now will be remembered. It would be great if it was as the time when being kind to the planet became popular, but I guess it's more likely to be the advent of Reality TV!

Madame DeFarge said...

I'm inclined to agree with Derrick. Most of what we see as 'history' is a fairly sanitised version of what happened, with all the boring bits (and rotten teeth) taken out.

And I'd like to avoid moo cows - scare the living daylights out of me.

chris hale said...

Mo - The BL is a genuinely quiet place. Something that's getting rarer all the time.

Rob - Yes, I think microcelebs unravelling before our eyes will pip the reduction of energy consumption to the post!

MDF - History has mostly been written by the winners, who (of course) tend to gloss over their own shortcomings (like wholesale slaughter, for example). Oh, and how not to fall foul of a cow? Look the udder way.

punk in writing said...

I've worked at fairs of the living history kind. It's a lot of fun even if they are cleaned up. One year I worked a booth next to a blacksmith who worked with traditional methods.

Mind you, these were serious affairs, organized by historical societies and museums. No plastic anywhere, even the ice cream vendor outside the fairground used ceramic cups.

And you haven't lived until you've seen a viking remove his helmet to answer his cell phone. :D

chris hale said...

Punky - And what was that Viking's name? Sony Ericsson, perhaps?